The house lay in darkness. On the outside, it looked like a normal house, almost aggressively so. Ordinary in the extreme, fitting in with its neighbours to the point that the only difference was the number 4 next to the door.
Inside the house was a different matter. Oh, it looked normal enough to the casual observer — couches, a table, pictures on the mantlepiece showing a big man, a thin woman and a beachball which on closer inspection might resolve into a young child, around the age of 6 or perhaps a little older. His size made it difficult to guess his age.
It was not until closer interaction with the family that lived here, that one might notice the other little boy. The one who was in none of the pictures, and who moved through the house almost like a ghost, leaving as few impressions as he could. This boy's age was likewise difficult to guess, as painfully thin as he was.
On this particular night, the little black-haired boy was sitting on his mattress in what passed for his room, the cupboard under the stairs where his aunt and uncle made him sleep. He was hugging a formless grey pillow to his chest, biting his lip in an effort not to cry. He had learned a long time ago that tears led only to more punishments. It was difficult to keep the tears inside though. The glass that Dudley had thrown on the floor right next to him had resulted in a bruise on his upper arms and a tirade about worthless freaks who were too clumsy to clear the table without dropping something, then he had to clean up the shattered pieces and then straight to his cupboard.
He was distracted from his tears when he heard a wheezing, grinding noise filling his cupboard while a wind picked up out of nowhere, ruffling his hair. When all was calm and still again, there was, impossibly, a blue box standing in his cupboard, taking up most of the space. The boy stared at it, while listening desperately for the sound of heavy footfalls on the stairs. It seemed nothing short of a miracle that his uncle had not woken up from the noise and come pounding down to explain in excruciating details why he should have kept quiet.
Not that he would be able to get inside. The strange box was quite completely blocking the cupboard's door.
Satisfied that nobody would come running, the boy looked more closely at the box. It was blue, with wooden panels, nearer the top glass panes, above that letters and at the very top a light which had pulsed with the same rythm as the wheezing sound, but which was now dark. The boy sounded out the letters, the way he'd been teaching himself to do. P — O — L... Police box. It looked like it should not be able to fit into the cupboard, and yet it did. In short, it was exactly the sort of nonsense his uncle did not hold with, and in turn made the boy predisposed to like it.
The box's door opened, and there was muttering on the other side. There was someone inside. Because... because of course there was, why not? Nothing could beat the box actually appearing in strangeness. The boy strained his ears to hear what the voice was saying.
"... don't understand. Should I check the dimensional control again, old girl? It's been holding up quite well though, and I checked it not that long ago, so what has affected your outer dimensions like this? Let me check out there, you might just be environmentally challenged at the moment."
The muttering stopped, and then the owner of the voice stuck his head outside the box's door. He blinked for a moment, focused his eyes on the boy regarding him solemnly, and grinned. There was nothing malicious in that grin, either, just pure joy at meeting someone. "Hello there!" the head said. The boy cocked his head to the side.
"Wait, one moment. Let me just..." with a grunt and a twist, the head was followed by the rest of the man's body. He was tall and lanky, and the predominant impression was "brown". Brown hair, brown eyes, brown pinstriped suit with just a splash of red at his feet. "There, much better. Talking always goes better if you're completely in the same dimension, don't you find?"
The boy was not quite sure how to answer that question, not having much experience with other dimensions of any kind, so he stayed quiet. The brown man luckily did not seem to actually expect an answer. "So, I seem to have got lost. Could you tell me where I am?"
That was a question the boy did know how to answer. "In the cupboard under the stairs." He left off the "of course" that wanted to follow. It didn't seem like a place you could easily get lost in, so to speak, but then what did he know? He wouldn't have thought it possible to get lost anywhere while sitting inside a blue box either, but here they were.
The man looked surprised for a moment. That was not an answer he had expected. He sat down cross-legged close to the boy, since there was really not a lot of room left. He ran a hand through his hair, making it stick up, and grinned again easily. "All right then, introductions. I love introductions! Especially the ones that happen twice! I'm the Doctor. What's your name?"
The boy hesitated. "... Freak?" he offered. He didn't think that was quite right, but it was what he was called most often. He shrank back from the thunderous expression that replaced the easy grin. On his uncle, an expression like that usually meant a hiding and possibly no dinner. The Doctor, however, shook his head and smiled at him, if a little more subdued than before.
"I doubt that very much. Tell you what, we'll pick a name you like, and that can be your name from now on. Or you could choose a title if you'd rather, there's absolutely nothing wrong with a title. Then we'll go from there, what do you say?"
Instead of answering — mostly because he didn't know what name he liked, nobody ever asked him what he liked — he asked, "Why are you here?"
Questions were very much discouraged in the Dursley household, but they had not quite managed to curb his natural curiosity yet, and anyway the Doctor seemed like the type of person who'd give an actual answer. This impression was confirmed when the nervous energy radiating from the Doctor stilled for a moment.
"I'm... not exactly sure. Like I said, I got lost. I was actually aiming for Eskaron Three, wonderful little bazaar they have there, very... ah... avant-garde. I will have been there at least a dozen time, I found out last time, which was my first, but I can't seem to find the way back. Oh well, no matter, I'll get there eventually.
"Now, back to the important question — what do you want to be called?"
The boy ducked his head, trying to hide his embarrased blush. "Don't know." he mumbled.
The Doctor nudged one of his knees so that he'd look up, and winked at him. "Bit of an odd choice there, Don't know. Perhaps a different name? You're free to change your mind at a later date, you know. I'll try to keep up."
The boy shrugged and looked away, though he couldn't hide the tiny smile that the Doctor's teasing had brought about.
"Alright then, what about Alonso? Because I would really like to yell "Allons-y, Alonso!" again at some point." The boy giggled, but cut the sound short immediately by clapping a hand in front of his mouth, eyes wide. He shook his head, though, which encouraged the Doctor to keep going.
"No? I guess that was too much to hope for. Not to worry, my well of inspiration has only just started blossoming! That... did not sound right, please forget I said that. What about... Bob? Nah, too common. David? Bert? Bird, maybe? Heh, guess not. Oh, Hamish!"
The boy made a face and giggled again, this time without cutting himself off. He mumbled something that the Doctor did not quite catch.
Making a show of bending closer and cupping his ear, he said "What was that? Have mercy, young'un, I'm well over 800 years old, these ears are not what they used to be!"
The boy glanced at him and away again, as if embarrassed that he had said anything at all, although he did repeat his words. "I said, I like Harry."
A brilliant grin lighted up the Doctor's face. "Nice to meet you, Harry. Next important question! Why are you sitting in the cupboard under the stairs?"
Harry looked at the Doctor with wide green eyes. "Well, it's bedtime." he said, as if that was all the explanation that was needed. The Doctor's politely puzzled face prompted him to continue. "I sleep here. This is my bed." He pointed at the mattress he was sitting on.
"You... That... Why? Is there no room where you can sleep? Are your parents very poor? Not if they live in a house with stairs, they're not. How many rooms are up there?" The question was accompanied by a long finger pointing upwards, as if he needed to elaborate what he meant.
Harry looked down at the floor. "My parents died in a car crash when I was a baby. The house belongs to my aunt Petunia and uncle Vernon, but they don't have enough room for freaks. I sleep here and should be grateful for the roof over my head, because who else'd take on my freakishness out of the goodness of their hearts?"
The bitter twist of his mouth looked quite out of place on the — what was he, six? — six-ish-year-old face. The Doctor opened his mouth, but for once did not quite know what to say, except "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
Harry dashed away the tears that came unbidden to his eyes and continued answering the Doctor's questions. "Upstairs are the master bedroom, Dudley's bedroom, Dudley's second bedroom where he keeps all his toys, and the guest room. Aunt Marge sleeps there when she comes around. Freaks not allowed, except to clean!"
He twisted the rag that passed for a blanket between his fingers. A dam had burst inside of him, the one that had kept all the hurt at bay. He wouldn't have been able to stop the words now even if he wanted to.
"No, freaks should know their place and not touch anything. They should take their punishments like a man, because everything is always their fault, even if it wasn't an accident but it was Dudley then it was still the freak's fault."
At some point during his rant the tears actually started falling, but he didn't pay them any mind. These were thoughts he'd had for a long time, ever since he'd had the mental capacity to understand that the way his so-called family treated him was not normal. The words only came out now that there was someone sitting next to him who was actually listening to him. The words just kept on coming, until eventually they died out as the tears took over. Still, the Doctor did not turn away in disgust or tell him that boys were not supposed to cry. Instead, his arms came up to pull Harry into his lap, one hand guiding his head to lean on the Doctor's shoulder, the other rubbing his arm up and down. One of Harry's small fists came up and grabbed hold of a lapel, bunching the fabric.
This was the first time that Harry could remember tears leading to anything other than a cuff around the ears and enough time in his cupboard to hide them. The act of kindness alone was enough to bring on a new torrent of tears, and still the Doctor did not let go. Harry had the strangest feeling that even if he were to cry forever, the Doctor would still be there to rub his arm, stroke his hair, rock him, whisper over and over the same mantra: "It's ok, cry, let it all out. Let it out now, there's a good lad." on and on for as long as he needed it.
Eventually, gradually, the crying grew softer and then stopped, letting silence settle, punctuated only by a last couple of sniffles. And still, miraculously, no sound came from upstairs. Hard as it was to believe, uncle Vernon had slept through the whole thing.
The Doctor still did not let go. He only moved one hand to wipe away some of the tears from Harry's cheeks. The boy lay listening to the odd double beat of the Doctor's heart. He'd almost swear he could hear two heartbeats, but that was impossible... right?
"Better now?" The Doctor asked. Harry knew he should let go of the lapel he'd grabbed firm hold of, but he found he could not get himself to move. This was by far the safest he'd ever felt anywhere. Instead, he nodded his head.
"Alright then. This is not quite what I was expecting when setting the coordinates for Eskaron Three, but I can work with this. I have to say, I don't usually travel with children, I think maybe Adric was one of the youngest? But this once I could make an exception. So, Harry, next very very important question, possibly even more important than what to call you! Do you want to come with me?"
That question did cause Harry to give up his comfortable position. The blossoming hope in his green eyes was almost painful to see, although he did not quite let himself believe that he had heard correctly. "Come with you... where?"
The Doctor smiled. "Oh, I dunno. Away from here, anywhere you want to go. Eskaron three, if you want. New Earth, London in the twenty-fifth century, Cardiff in the nineteenth — no, not that one, there's already one of me running amok there. Er... Rexicoricophalapatorius possibly? They're not all Slitheen there, some of the families are really quite lovely. I could take you to Klom, but only if you really really wanted to see it because who'd want to go there? You name it and we'll go."
"You really mean it? You'd take a freak with you?"
The Doctor's eyebrows drew together for a moment in a glower. "I wouldn't offer if I didn't mean it. I do have one condition, however. I want you to understand that you are not a freak. You have never been a freak and you will not think of yourself like that. If you find yourself thinking like that you come straight to me and we'll work through it, ok? Do you think you can do that?"
A shy smile stole over Harry's face as he nodded. "I can do that."
"Good. Now then, first things first — please step into my wonderful vessel, also known as the TARDIS." Even as he spoke, he helped Harry to stand up, straightened up himself as far as the cupboard allowed, and gestured at the blue door through which he'd appeared earlier.
"She may seem a little on the small side when you look at her from this angle, normally her outer dimensions are bigger. She must've compressed herself to fit, so I'd say she likes you. Bit of a squeeze at the moment to get in, but once we're inside I'll park us in the Vortex so we can get you settled in. Come on in, she doesn't bite!"
Harry wasn't sure what he was expecting when he followed the Doctor through the door. Or rather, he was expecting to see the far wall of the box close enough to touch, located right next to where the wall of his cupboard was. He was not prepared for the sight of a metal ramp running up, with a railing and everything, followed by a grate circling around a big machine-looking thing full of buttons and levers. The roof was supported by coral-like pillars reaching upwards.
Harry just stood and took in the whole scene for a while, before turning to the Doctor, who was watching him expectantly. "Are you magic?"
The Doctor barked out a surprised laugh. "Ha! That's a new one. No, I'm not, I'm a scientist, it's just that my science is a bit more advanced than yours."
Harry's face fell at his words, and he kneeled to be on the same level as the boy. "Why do you ask?"
"No reason," the boy answered reluctantly. "'s just that... my uncle Vernon keeps saying that magic isn't real, and I'd love for him to be wrong."
The Doctor took one of his hands and smiled crookedly at him. "Don't give up hope yet, Harry. It's a big universe and I haven't seen nearly all of it. Just because I happen to be a scientist doesn't mean magic doesn't exist. We could even go look for it if you want, just to prove your uncle wrong. That'd be a sight to see, too, real magic.
"Now then! Vortex first, check-up second, room third. Allons-y!"
With that, the Doctor bounded up the ramp and danced around the middle part, pressing this or that button and twiddling some knobs, until he finally threw a big lever with a dramatic gesture. Harry heard the same groaning sound as when the TARDIS had first appeared in his cupboard, while a round... thing... went up and down in the center.
When the noise and movement stopped, Harry wondered if something had gone wrong. He didn't have the feeling that they'd moved at all, so for all he knew they were still on Privet Drive. The Doctor didn't look worried, though, so he might be wrong.
"Don't just stand there, Harry. Come on up, I'd like to run a couple of scanners over you in the med bay, if you don't mind. Nothing to worry about, you won't even need to undress. After that we'll find you a nice room to kip in, and then when you wake up you get to decide where we'll go. Alright?"
Harry hesitantly approached the Doctor where he was standing next to the... thing. He pursed his lips, annoyed at his lack of vocabulary. Should he ask? All his life he'd been told not to ask questions, but so far the Doctor had answered every question he'd had, so plucking up his courage he pointed at the machinery. "What is that?"
The Doctor glanced to the side to see what he was pointing at. "Oh, right. That's the console. And as it happens, we're in the console room! Funny how these things turn out, isn't it. Come on, the med bay is this way."
Harry found himself sitting on a sort of metal bench, although it was softer and warmer than he would have expected from metal. There was a screen sitting next to him, which showed swirls and circles in apparently random patterns. The Doctor was studying the screen and mumbling to himself, so apparently the circles meant more to him than they did to Harry.
At some point he'd donned a pair of dark-rimmed glasses, peering through them first at the screen, then at Harry, and back again. Before the boy could grow uncomfortable under the scrutiny, the Doctor whipped off the glasses, rummaged through an inside pocket of his pin-striped vest, and put on a different pair — one lens blue, the other red, and apparently made of cardboard. He peered at Harry again, but frowned and put the odd glasses back where he found them.
"It's not Void stuff, and it's not Artron particles, not even close. So it's not the Donna situation repeated, although it wasn't that anyway because you didn't appear in the middle of the console room in your wedding dress. I dunno, it still looks kinda familiar but I can't for the life of me think where I might have encountered this before, so what is it?"
Harry looked on, confusion plainly written on his face. "Sorry... what is what?"
The Doctor turned to face him fully. "Don't apologise for asking a question. There's something in your genetic make-up that I can't quite put my finger on. It's like you're... I don't know, not quite human? More human? Human v.2? There seem to be some kind of particles which I have not seen in a human before."
Harry's face fell. "I'm sorry," he said in a small voice, looking down at the floor. The Doctor's eyebrows rose up.
"Sorry? What are you sorry for? It's very interesting, brilliant even!"
Harry risked a look up at the Doctor's face, and felt somewhat reassured by the whole-hearted grin he could see there. His aunt and uncle had never ever looked at him like that, and when Dudley grinned it was a much crueler look and he knew it was time to find a good hiding spot. Nothing came close to the genuine look on the Doctor's face.
"You're not mad that I'm a freak then," he asked, just to be sure.
The Doctor wagged a long finger at him. "Tut tut, Harry, what did we agree? I am not in the habit of inviting freaks onboard the TARDIS, therefore you are not a freak. What you are is a mystery, and me, I love a good mystery. They're the reason I travel. They make things interesting.
"Now then, I do believe I promised you a room. This way!"
They travelled through the same dimly lit corridor that they'd used to get to the med bay, passing by several doors. It occurred to Harry that they were in a space many times larger than Privet Drive 4. It was hard to wrap his mind around, but he couldn't say it was impossible. After all, he was here, wasn't he?
"So if you're not magic, how do you explain all this?" He asked, gesturing vaguely to try and encompass the whole space. "'Cause the... TARDIS? Fit into my cupboard."
"Oh, well, lots of components really, but mostly the dimensional stabilizer," the Doctor answered, stopping in front of a door. Harry wasn't sure how he knew where they needed to be, this door did not look all that different from the others they'd passed, but he guessed the Doctor knew the TARDIS as well as Harry knew his cupboard, despite the difference in size.
Inside the room there was a desk on one side, as well as a small wardrobe, and on the other side there was an actual bed with clean sheets, freshly made up. On top of the bed lay a pair of pyjamas.
"There's a bathroom through there." The Doctor pointed at a door wedged inbetween the desk and the wardrobe. "I'll let you get changed and then I'll tuck you in, is that ok? Or are you too big to be tucked in?"
Harry blushed a little, though he showed a small smile anyway. "I'd like that." He couldn't remember ever getting tucked in before bed. His mum might've, he guessed? He liked to think so anyway. She was sure to have a different method than aunt Petunia, who would point at the cupboard and sneer for him to get in and be quiet.
When the Doctor had closed the door to wait in the corridor, Harry quickly stepped out of Dudley's rags and into the pyjamas. They were a dark blue, decorated with stars and planets, and by far the softest garments he had ever worn. Even more amazingly, they actually fit, unlike any of Dudley's old cast-offs. For a moment he just stood, hugging himself. He wondered if he might be dreaming, but he didn't think he had quite the imagination to come up with all this. He'd often daydreamed about someone coming and taking him away from his awful relatives, but none of his daydreams ever came close to his current bizarre situation, and his normal dreams might be closer but were usually too disjointed.
The Doctor knocked once and cracked the door open to peek around it. "Are you decent? Good." With that, he came inside and closed the door behind him. "Looks like the jammies fit, I'm glad. It's amazing the things you pick up while travelling, I have no idea where the TARDIS might have got these from but they're handy now, eh? Want to get into the bed now? Any last minute questions that absolutely cannot wait until after you've slept?"
Harry looked at the Doctor with wide green eyes. "Would you... um..." the eyes looked down and to the side, and he rubbed one hand over the back of the other. "No, it's nothing, never mind."
The Doctor cocked his head to one side, considering the young child standing there, then got down on one knee. "Harry, look at me please." When the boy complied, the Doctor regarded him seriously. "I promise you that you can always tell me what's on your mind, and ask me any questions you may have. I can't say that I will always answer, but I will do my best. What did you want me to do? Would I... what?
Harry blushed a little. "Would you read me a story? Stay with me for just a bit?"
The Doctor smiled happily. "I would love to. Get in."
Harry scrambled into the bed and looked shyly at the Doctor. "You're sure you don't mind?"
"Very sure. I have done this before, you know. It might have been a while ago but I haven't quite forgotten how to tuck in a child. Now lets see, what story do I remember?"
Harry happily snuggled into the blankets. Nobody had ever told him a story in the Dursley household. That was not to say that he didn't know any fairy tales, of course. On evenings that uncle Vernon was not at home, he'd snuck up sometimes to listen to aunt Petunia read to Dudley. He could even listen to the end of the tale, because the story was only just the start of getting Dudley to sleep. By the time aunt Petunia came down, he was long back in his cupboard, pretending that it was him she'd read to.
"This is the tale of Maximelos and the three Ogrons. He vanquished the vicious one, tricked the stupid one and finally found the right one.
"One day, Maximelos was walking in the wild lands outside the Citadel. Not without good reason, of course, for he was looking for an Ogron."
Harry quickly discovered that the difference between Petunia reading a story and the Doctor telling him one was like night and day. Aunt Petunia always read just a little bit too quickly, with little to no intonation, like she'd rather be doing something else — anything else. The Doctor, on the other hand, was fully invested in his story. He used not only the full range of his voice, but also his facial expressions and even his whole body.
The story of Maximelos and the Ogrons was a fairy tale Harry had never heard before, and the Doctor used words he did not know, but that was alright. He could always ask later. Before he knew it, the Doctor's voice became a distant murmuring and he drifted off into sleep.
When the story was finished and Harry proved to be asleep, the Doctor stalked back to the console room. He was not quite sure what he was doing, inviting a child to come with him, but there was something about Harry... He still did not know how old the boy was, but those eyes... There was an old soul if ever he'd met one. Then there was the way the TARDIS had crammed herself into the cupboard under the stairs, like she was sending him a message: This is more important than a bit of discomfort.
With the flip of a switch, they materialised. He hadn't lied to Harry when he'd said the boy could choose their next destination, but while he slept the Doctor had a little errand to run.
He strolled outside to see a row of identical houses, the picture of suburban hell bliss. He could feel his eyebrows try to rise into his hairline. Everything here was ordered just so, not a blade of grass out of place. A quick scan of the houses with the sonic screwdriver revealed traces of the same... stuff... that made up Harry's body around number 4, so he took the psychic paper from his pocket and made his way there.
He rang the bell and plastered a friendly smile on his face. He didn't much want to smile at these people, who had pushed down a little boy until he could go no lower, convinced him that his name was Freak, but he was nothing if not a consummate actor. He could bullshit his way through anything.
The door opened, and for a moment he thought he'd come to the wrong place, as a Darivinian was stood there, looking down her nose at him. But no, that wasn't quite right, he was definitely on earth and she was definitely human, if rather long-necked.
"Hi there! I'm Dr. John Smith from the Bureau for the Welfare of Children. We're conducting a survey on the raising of children across the British Isles. We understood that you have a child, do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions? Ta ever so much!"
Before the horrid woman could so much as protest, he'd made his way into the living room, examining some of the pictures on the mantlepiece by the time she joined him. "This is your boy, is it? A strapping lad. Weeeell, I say strapping, but I mean somewhat obese. Weeeell, I say obese, but really I mean a beachball.
"Oh! Was that rude? That was rude. Ah well, that's me, rude and not ginger."
He turned around to face the woman, who rather looked like she'd bitten into a lemon. "Look, mr. Smith."
"Dr. Smith. If you've only come here to insult my baby boy, I must ask you to leave my house."
"Oh no no. I did have a reason to come, and it was not a survey." The pleasant smile slid off his face, leaving an expression that sent shivers down Petunia's spine. "I'm here about the other boy living in your house. The one without pictures on the mantlepiece."
Petunia sputtered, "What... How did you... You are quite mistaken, there is no other boy, please go now and leave my family alone."
The Doctor drew himself up to his full height. The look in his eyes was something not quite human. "I don't think you quite understand, madam. I know that you have a boy living here. I know where he sleeps. Would you like me to go to the stairs and open the cupboard? Hmm?"
Petunia visibly deflated. Whoever this John Smith person was, he did know.
"Harry Potter is my sister's child. He was left on our doorstep about five years ago and we've been trying to raise him, hard though he made it for us. If you're looking for him, you'll not find him here. The ungrateful wretch must've slipped out early this morning, he wasn't here when I got down. I'm sure he'll slink back in some time this evening."
The Doctor suppressed a shudder at the total lack of concern in the woman's voice. But then, he hadn't really expected anything else.
"Don't worry about Harry," he said, voice dripping with sarcasm, "he's quite safe. All I want is his toys or anything else that might belong to him, and then you won't have to see either of us ever again."
Petunia regarded him for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision as she snapped, "Fine, if you want the little freak, be my guest and good riddance, I'll be glad to be rid of him. I hope he and his lot never darken our doorstep again. I'll go get his stuff, you wait here and don't move a step further into my house, or I'll call the police!"
The Doctor wondered for a moment at her sneer at the word 'stuff', but he didn't care about her enough to ask. As she went upstairs, he went out into the hallway and gently opened the cupboard door. He wasn't particularly worried about her calling the police, not with what he knew of her treatment of Harry. Funny how that was the name the boy had chosen for himself, when he hadn't even remembered being called that. Perhaps his unconscious had retained the information.
In the light of day, he had to wonder yet again how the TARDIS had managed to fit herself into the cupboard, with room to spare for him and the boy. She must've really wanted him to help.
Inside he scooped up a couple of beat up tin soldiers, but didn't immediately see anything else that the child might miss. By the time Petunia came down with a box in her hands — and wasn't it sad that five years of the child living here could be packed up in one box — he was standing by the doorway, eager to be on his way. He did not want to be in this house one second longer than he had to be.
Petunia thrust the box into his hands and pointedly opened the door. He left without another word, pretty sure that he would not be able to rein in his temper if he spoke now. When the door closed behind him, he glanced at it one last time, then turned towards the TARDIS and the little boy sleeping there.